Belinda Rathbone first met John in 1954, when she was too young and he was too old for them to take an interest in each other. But in 1990, she was 39, and he was 54, and they were the only single cousins at a family wedding. (The two shared a common cousin, but were not related themselves.) She lived in New York, and he lived in London, but he had recently inherited his ancestral home in Scotland, the Guynd, making him “the reluctant incumbent to a sadly run-down estate.” A few months later, Belinda found herself at the Guynd.
John fumbled with a collection of keys on a string and opened the heavy double doors, then the big front door. We entered a vast front hall. It smelled damp, the damp of stone walls and old carpets and I don’t know what else. Its far corners were rounded by fourteen-foot classical columns and matching pilasters, all of them pained black. The walls had faded from whatever they once were to a nondescript beige. An old Turkish carpet of page green and orange covered the stone floor. A single bare lightbulb hung from the ceiling. A mass of tools a bric-a-brac littered a table in one of the far corners. A wicker dog basket, padded with a shredded blanket, presided over another. There were two alcoves containing bronze boy figures of unknown origin on pedestals, one of them adorned with a paper party hat, and two grandfather clocks, one to the right, the other straight ahead under the stairs, neither ticking.
When Belinda and John marry, they move into the Guynd and begin working to make it more livable. For Belinda, that means clearing out all the junk as quickly as possible, brightening up the rooms, and perhaps adding just a few modern conveniences, as long as they’re in keeping with the dignity and age of the house. For John, it means saving every single thing that could conceivably be useful, avoiding unnecessary changes, and working slowly and deliberately on all changes deemed important. Somehow, despite their differing visions, they’re able to make the house and grounds more pleasant, but there’s always more to do on such a massive estate.
In her memoir, Belinda writes of the challenges of restoring the house and grounds and of navigating a culture so new to her. It hits a lot of the usual notes you’d expect in this kind of story. There are renovations that take longer than expected, differing opinions about what to do, and struggles and triumphs in finding community. Her style is straightforward, sometimes a little distant. She doesn’t play their mishaps for laughs, nor does she turn every lesson into a revelation. It’s a competent, often enjoyable story of getting the kind of thing many people fantasize about and realizing that it’s a lot of work.
What makes this book interesting, though, is the story she chooses not to tell—or not to tell fully. This story forces its way into the narrative because it cannot be avoided, but you can sense that she’s holding back. It’s the story of her marriage, and we only become sure that there’s more of a story to tell in the final pages of the book.
It’s evident throughout the book that Belinda and John differ in their approach to restoring the Guynd, and these differences are a source of tension, sometimes serious tension. What is less clear, until the end, is how those differences make Belinda feel about her marriage as a whole. A story of a foundering marriage is a different story from one about remaking an old house into a new home. The marriage story would almost certainly overshadow the house story were Rathbone to spend much time on it. I don’t know that I would have liked the marriage story. It could easily turn too bitter and heated; such a story would be extremely difficult to tell fairly.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with writing a memoir about a marriage that’s falling apart, but Rathbone’s choice to hold back makes a lot of sense and is perhaps even the classiest choice, especially when there’s a kid involved. And to not share anything about their troubled marriage would have felt dishonest, so her disclosure toward the end of the book also makes sense. I can see why she made the narrative choices that she did, and I was only slightly taken aback when I learned in the final chapters how distressed she really felt about her like. But I was taken aback.
This all makes me wonder how much we do expect memoirists to share. When a memoir is focused on one aspect of a person’s life, I know there will be omissions. And I also know that writers feel an understandable need to consider the feelings and the privacy of their family, friends, and colleagues. Exposure of every detail is neither required nor desirable. But are there times when the story feels incomplete because the author chooses discretion over disclosure? It’s a tough question, and although I enjoyed this book on the whole, I’m still pondering how Rathbone navigated this sticky situation.